The World As They See It: Andrew Vachss
As told to Ken Kesegich
To say that Andrew Vachss is a man on a mission is an understatement. For nearly forty years, Mr. Vachss, a 1965 graduate of Adelbert College, has worked relentlessly for a single cause: the protection of children. The Manhattan-born Mr. Vachss has committed his life to this cause. His early career included stints running a reentry center for ex-convicts and a juvenile prison, a period in which he came to the conclusion that has directed the rest of his life: "Child protection and crime prevention are inextricably intertwined." His New York City law and consulting practice, which he founded in 1976, is devoted exclusively to representing children. His acclaimed fiction, including the "Burke" series of novels, and nonfiction and textbook writing shine a bright light on the realities of child abuse—all the while advancing strategies to combat it. His lectures and website ("The Zero," at www.vachss.com) are additional methods in his fight against people who hurt children. His ultimate goal, says Mr. Vachss, is a broad change in the attitudes toward child abuse and the laws meant to prevent it.
Without the anger, there's nothing. There's nothing. You could intellectually study the work I do at some sort of academic distance—and I'm not saying that would be inherently invalid, or shouldn't be done. But if you work at ground zero, without anger, you have no source of energy—you sure as hell can't draw any energy from the "encouragement" of people who don't even want to look at what you're doing.
I never believed that sort of quasi–Nietzschean crap about looking into the abyss and the abyss looks into you, and, if you hate enough, you become what you hate. I consider that the sort of fake cynicism that really masks cowardice.
People have got a lot of excuses for not acting. Some say, "Oh, a person can be consumed by hate." Sure, but a person can be consumed by love, too. A person can be consumed by anything, to the point where we call it an obsession.
I never claimed that I do what I do because I love children. I admit freely I do it because I hate the people who prey on them. And I don't see any evidence that this is eating me up. I may not be the most charming dinner guest. I may not be a fun guy. But all I have to show for my life when I'm done—the same as anybody else—is how the place is different because I was in the room. I think hate's a pretty good fuel for the car that I've chosen to drive.
I can point to specific children who are safe because of me. I can say that, but for me, in certain cases, children would've suffered a horrible fate. Or that children were in the midst of suffering a horrible fate and I was part of the rescue effort.
Actually, I believe I'm given more credit than I deserve, because of the focus and the attention that's been drawn to my work—I think because of the combination of writing as well as being in the courtroom and doing the consulting work and the lecturing work and all of that. People tend to credit me with damn near everything.
After I'm gone, people can come up with their own assessments. But they will say this: I died trying.
What's given me the most satisfaction is watching a perpetrator taken out of action. Even more so than saving an individual child. Because when you take a perpetrator out of the game, you save a whole lot of children.
I'm generally not there for the last stanza. In my typical case, an egregious case, a child ends up with "parental rights" terminated and adopted by real human beings who want to love the child. I'm not there to see that. I don't do that. I'm not in the healing part of the business. I'm in the fighting part of the business, so my job is to get the child in the hands of healers. And what that feels like is not more complicated than this: I did my job. It doesn't feel like the knockout punch I wish I'd been blessed with.
If you could put all the people who hurt children for pleasure and profit in one room and give me a weapon big enough to blow that room into ashes, I would personally carry it in there and detonate it, laughing. But I don't have any such delusions. The only way there's going to be lasting, substantial change is if the entire system changes. Saving individual children is, of course, a source of satisfaction. But I wouldn't have turned to the writing if I didn't believe we needed much, much broader change, if we're going to save not just this country but our species.
One of the most important lessons I've learned is how cheaply people can be bought. We're having an election. Americans who, if you polled and said, "What's the most important thing to you?" would all say, "Oh, children, children are the most important thing to me." Americans are satisfied with this sort of bizarre mutual nonaggression pact that the candidates always have—which is, "I will not challenge you on the issue of child protection, and you will not challenge me."
You can't run for president in America unless you declare yourself on issues like abortion, capital punishment, or taxes. But all you have to do to declare yourself on child protection is to say, "I love children." And that's it. It's a free pass after that.
So one of the most important lessons to me is that people's reality lies way south of their rhetoric. And if I had to sum up the most important lesson of my life, it would be that behavior is the truth.
It's very simple. There are politicians who drive to the statehouse drunk and vote for increased penalties for drunk driving, because MADD is a significant lobby. The gun lobby gets people to vote, regardless of whatever personal feelings they might have.
The way all lobbies work is they promise a deliverable block of votes on a single issue. Unless and until there is a lobby that says our single issue is child protection, and how you behave toward that issue will determine our block of votes, there will not be substantial, fundamental change in child protection in America.
I've had a lot of turning points, because I've made a lot of turns. I tried a lot of different things. But I do think the cataclysmic turning point in my life was when I was a field investigator in sexually transmitted diseases [for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1965 and 1966].
I had not been raised in prep schools. I was a young man, like a lot of young men, who thought I'd seen what there was to be seen in the world. I knew people did things to children. I knew that very well growing up. But the first time I encountered an infant with a sexually transmitted disease—and I don't mean congenitally transmitted; I mean transmitted by forcible sex—those little red dots that dance in front of my eyes, those little red dots of hate, they have never actually gone away. From that moment, I went in hot pursuit of my enemy.
I took a lot of wrong turns. I spent time with agencies and in organizations that I thought were devoted to the same goals I was pursuing. I spent a lot of years doing that. But, even though I eventually ended up going into business for myself, as a lawyer exclusively representing children, the turning point was back in that little town in Ohio, not quite forty years ago.
There have been a lot of things since then that reinforced my hatred. You spend your time as a caseworker for the Department of Welfare, and you get to see firsthand how the government–created culture of poverty has robbed millions of children of what should be their rightful heritage, their opportunity to be full Americans. You can't be on the ground in a genocidal war, as I was [in Biafra], and not come away with an absolutely indescribable hatred for human beings who don't just authorize but actually facilitate genocide, and an abiding contempt for those who look the other way. You can't see the things that I've seen without the hatred constantly being refueled. But you can't call any of them turning points, because, but for the original turning point, who knows what I might have done with my life?
When I went to law school and told classmates my intent was to become a lawyer and represent children, I got nothing but sneers and contemptuous laughs, except from the two men who remain my partners to this day. Nobody does that. Once I explained that I didn't intend to work for the government, I was dismissed as an idiot. But I didn't consider that an obstacle to overcome. I considered these sneering little pretend–cynical children to be just that.
Because by the time I went to law school, I had been out in the world ten years. I'd seen things they couldn't even imagine. I'd survived things that they'd never faced. I really didn't consider law school to be this cosmic challenge to overcome. And I knew I could make a living as a lawyer. Until the books came along, I couldn't make a living exclusively representing children—I had to do criminal defense part–time. But I didn't consider these big handicaps or great obstacles to overcome.
When I see the obstacles that people overcome every day, I don't consider any obstacle I ever faced to be that immense.
I know—because I've litigated against major law firms all by myself—that tenacity is what wins fights. I'm not blessed with this "I can snap my fingers and make my opponent go away." But you can outwork anybody. My technique has always been punch the wall, punch the wall, punch the wall, punch the wall. Sooner or later, either the wall cracks or you're done. That hasn't changed.
If people say, "The Internet has changed child abuse"—no, it hasn't. It's increased the marketing of certain aspects of child abuse, but the Internet is a piece of technology. It's neutral, like a surgeon's scalpel. A killer can use it to take lives; a physician might use it to save lives. The Internet is a way of looking at it as service delivery, good or bad, without defining "service." But it hasn't changed child abuse.
People have exploited children for their own pleasure and their own profit since there have been children. If I had to pick a piece of technology that most significantly impacted child pornography, for example, I would take the Polaroid camera way before I'd take the Internet. Because any time it allows a human being to produce that product without having to go outside his own home, then, of course, there are people who are going to get away with what otherwise they might have been apprehended for.
I don't think child abuse has changed. I do think that reporting has changed. When people pick up a newspaper today, they are likely to read about some case of child abuse. I don't think fifty years ago that was true. In fact, I know it was not. So, if you look at child abuse statistics, which didn't exist, say, in 1955, and then you looked at them today, you'd say, "Oh my God, child abuse has increased into this huge epidemic." My suggestion is that there's no proof that child abuse, in and of itself, has increased. There is proof that case–finding techniques have increased, and reporting has increased.
I don't think people know the extent of human trafficking. And I do think those people who have some clue about human trafficking, by and large, tend to believe that this is an overseas phenomenon. That's wrong. But that's always been wrong.
The standard movie–of–the–week model is a young child from a loving, caring home on her way to school, and she's abducted by strangers and ends up somebody's sex slave in a whole ring. In reality, a vast majority of sexually exploited youth in America, when they are sexually exploited by strangers, were put in a position where that exploitation could take place with virtual immunity because of home conditions.
You cannot compare the guy in a ski mask who jumps out of the back of a van and grabs a kid on the way to school to the predatory pimp who "befriends" a kid who has run away from home because of incest.
Grabbing street kids, grabbing runaway kids, grabbing disaffected kids, grabbing kids who have been thrown away more than run away—it's not uncommon at all.
Yes, there are pedophile lobbies. Yes, there are organizations of humans whose goal it is to eliminate all legal child protection, so they can have unlimited sexual access to children. Yes, these are people who are not hiding under freeway ramps. These are educated, intelligent, financially stable human beings who can pay for lobbying. And what I would get back when I said that was, "Are you crazy? How could you make this up? What kind of a sick, fevered mind do you have?"
This was before the Internet. Of course, people I work with were "members" of all of these organizations—under other names, so we could get their literature and know what was going on. We would display their literature. Literature such as "How to get your own foster kid."
NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association] and Uncommon Desires are examples of organizations that advocate the elimination of age–of–consent laws. These are advocacy organizations which are first'amendment protected, and I'm grateful that they exist in the open. I'm not grateful they exist at all—obviously, if I could snap my fingers and make them vanish from the earth, that would be fine. But, you've got to understand, that, by them existing openly, we can prove to all those who think this is some fictional "horror story" that there is an enemy. A very real, very dangerous enemy.
There was something called the International Pedophile Liberation Front that actually published an enemies list, similar to how the anti–abortion sites do. Of course, I was on that list. I'm not going to minimize any threat, because it's not my nature to do so. But showing people things like this gave them the sense that there is a palpable, tangible enemy. And I would say to them, "You are looking at the absolute tip of the iceberg here. You're looking at the people who are open and up–front about their 'advocacy'."
I'm grateful to them. I'm grateful to them for exposing, for example, the whole concept of "child advocate," which is a self–awarded medal. NAMBLA calls itself a child advocacy organization: "What good is [a child's] right to say no if you don't have the right to say yes?" And, I'm telling you, NAMBLA is an extremely tame organization compared to others. NAMBLA would say, for example, that they are opposed to forcible sexual contact with children. Other organizations are not.
And progress has been made. Many of us were engaged in the bitter, vicious fight to separate NAMBLA from the gay community. Because NAMBLA, which focuses strictly on little boys, self–styled as a "homosexual" organization and used to march in gay–rights parades. Well, no more. So there's been real progress.
The existence of NAMBLA helped perspectify some of the insane lies that the media perpetrated. So, for example, a male kindergarten teacher has sex with a little boy—the newspapers would report this as "homosexual" child abuse. If his target was a little girl, they wouldn't call it "heterosexual" child abuse.
There are too many Americans who believe that homosexuals are potential pedophiles, and, indeed, that pedophiles are homosexuals run amok. Not only is that not true, but the only way to combat it is to have the evidence to actually place before a court or a committee or an organization.
The myth that a male who has sex with a male child is a homosexual—as opposed to a predatory pedophile—is endemic. I think that myth is all over the place. And I would say that that's actually the average person's perception of it. More common than not.
And, of course, if you're a person who, for his or her own reasons, is homophobic, then this sort of myth is a godsend. Because now you can't have homosexuals teaching in schools. You can't have them in the Boy Scouts or Big Brothers. It's a way to totally marginalize an entire group of people, as America has done with other minorities over the years.
But, always, you have to look beyond prejudice, to profit. You always have to do that, because there are, of course, ignorant people. Unlike stupidity, ignorance is something that can be overcome. But not the profiteers. Not the profiteers. The people who benefit from anything, be it the abuse of children, or homophobia, or racism, or war—those are the people who stand in the way of our entire civilization.
So, sure, do these organizations [like NAMBLA] exist? Absolutely. Do they have a first–amendment right to say they are against the age–of–consent laws? Sure they do. Is this enough to gag a maggot? Of course. I don't believe suppression is the answer for such groups. I don't believe the expression of opinion should be suppressed—I don't know where that stops.
I'm really glad they're out in the open. And they're not the only ones. They're not the only ones by any means, either nationally or internationally. You've got to be able to prove to people who think that all these "stories" are just that.
When I wrote a book back in 1987 called Strega, there was a whole discussion with a member of NAMBLA in the book about what it means to be a pedophile, from their point of view. And I also wrote in that book about modem trafficking and kiddie porn. Book reviewers fell all over themselves saying what a sick mind I had and how could I make this stuff up? They're not saying that any more.
And, interestingly enough, NAMBLA reviewed that book. And, while of course they dismissed me as a fascist lunatic who was too dangerous to be at large, they admitted that the portrait of a pedophile in the book was completely accurate and did reflect their views and philosophy. So it helped when somebody would say, "I read this part of the book, and you have a really sick mind to come up with that," to send them a copy of the NAMBLA Bulletin and say, "Is that right?"
Sickness is a mental illness. Essentially, sickness has this characteristic: It's nonvolitional and it's to some extent—and this varies, that's why I'm being so hesitant with that—responsive to treatment. There's a vast range. No one is going to say that paranoid schizophrenics are treatable; you can say they are responsive to medication. Clearly the problem is after the medication takes hold, and they're feeling good, getting them to continue to take it. You can say obsessive–compulsives are quite responsive to treatment. But the essence of sickness is, you don't choose it.
Evil is a choice. What distinguishes evil is that it is a decision. It's not in any way involuntary conduct. What Americans do, and this is completely understandable, is they confuse "sick" and "sickening." So if something is sufficiently repulsive to them, the response is, "That's sick!"
So if you're trying a case, and the accused has sexually assaulted twenty–five little boys, tortured them, taken photographs of them, sold the photographs—the more gross, the more grotesque, the more bizarre, the more reprehensible the conduct, the more likely the jury is to conclude that only a sick person would do that. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be further.
Predatory pedophiles are sociopathic, which means, foundationally, they absolutely lack empathy, have no feelings but their own, and pursue what they want unencumbered by morals or ethics. These are the most profoundly dangerous people on earth. When their particular predilection is the sexual abuse of children or any sort of exploitation of children, they are in fact going to do it.
I know people don't like the word "evil," because, to them, it has a religious context. And also it's overused. But you have to distinguish from "sick," because a sick person doesn't plot and doesn't plan and doesn't profit. Plot, plan, profit. If you see those words, you're not dealing with somebody who's sick. You're dealing with somebody who's evil. And that distinction has habitually been lost on Americans, because the media has muddled it so much.
We tend to think of predatory pedophiles as sick people. And when we think "sick," we think "cure." So pedophile treatment, hell, it was the growth industry of the nineties. Provided you had the money. If you're an impoverished predatory pedophile, well, you're just a freak and a child molester. But if in fact you're a person with money, then they have all kinds of other names for you, you see?
My practice has never been confined to sexual abuse cases, and never will be. In fact, it offends me that people focus all their energy there. I've written extensively that, in my opinion, the most long–lasting, deepest–scarring form of child abuse is, without question, emotional abuse. Of all the monsters that I have interviewed over the years, the one thing that is absolutely predominant in their background is not that they were sexually abused as children, but that they were emotionally abused as children.
Now, these things are rarely compartmentalized. I have not yet met a sexually abused child who was not emotionally abused. I have not yet met a physically abused child who was not emotionally abused. But many of them, especially the physically abused children, have long since forgotten or even—and this is not a concept I endorse—forgiven the physical abuse. But the emotional abuse alters them forever.
Of the cases that I've been the proudest of—the ones that change the way we do business—is one in which I brought an action against a pregnant woman while she was pregnant, asking the court for an order that, upon the birth of the child, the child be taken into state protective custody. Because I could prove, and I did in fact prove in court, [that there existed] beyond–overwhelming imminent danger to that child based on her conduct with all her previous children. One after the other after the other had been abused, in many different ways, although never sexually. Damaged irretrievably. I convinced the court that an hour in this woman's custody was a risk.
I remember one of her children. This child was burned with cigarette butts, and she was made to drink caustic substances, and rubbed in her own feces. Just treated every horrible way you could think of. Yet, what hurt this kid the most was, when I had the mother on the stand, I asked her, "Why did you take this child's hand and put it on a hot stove?" And this woman looked me right in the eye and said, "She wouldn't leave me alone. She always wanted attention. She was always grabbing at me." What's the chance of this child growing up to be a fully realized human being?
Attachment disorders are devastating. People who grow up being told "You're dumb, you're fat, you're ugly, you're stupid. I should've aborted you." I wrote an article in 1994 for Parade magazine [where he is a contributing editor] on emotional abuse that got the biggest outpouring of mail I'd ever seen. I got thousands of letters, just from that article. And the magazine itself got—I have no idea. Because it resonated so deeply with people who, all their lives, have been told, "Nobody tortured you and nobody raped you, so what are you complaining about?" You know, "Get over it."
So the idea of child sexual abuse—that's what gets the attention, no question. But it's not even close to the whole story. Let's just look at child exploitation. If people are told that children are being exploited, they immediately think about sex, right? What do you call the kids who are chained—literally chained—to workbenches? What do you call the children who are conscripted as soldiers? What do you call the children who are deliberately mutilated so they make better beggars? What do you call the children whose organs are harvested? None of that is "sexual" abuse, but all of it is obscene beyond description.
Children have been property since time immemorial. Which is why you have incest-loophole laws. In many states—New York is one, I'm ashamed to say [read an update here]—you actually can be subjected to far more severe criminal penalties for sex with a neighbor's child than you would be for sex with your own child. And when people say, "Well, how could such a law exist? It doesn't make sense"—the historical genesis of all these laws is that children are property. You can't burn down your neighbor's house, but you can burn down your own. You can't expect to collect the insurance, but you can burn down your own house. It's yours.
I've tried case after case after case where children were so battered, you wouldn't believe it. Had the same batteries been committed on a stranger's child, it would've been assault with intent to kill. But committed on one's own child, it's "excessive corporal punishment."
You could completely eliminate child sexual abuse and there would still be a cornucopia of horror inflicted on children every single day—again, for pleasure, again, for profit.
The overfocus on child sexual abuse, as if this was the only crime, is exactly why the other crimes flourish. Because crimes flourish in darkness. There are manuals published on how to beat your child.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. Manuals including which implements to use to get the most effect. There are entire clubs devoted to the joys of child beating. There is a brisk trade in audio– and videotapes of children being beaten. Wouldn't be called "pornography," you see. Now, is it for the sexual gratification of the participants? Of course! But it's not called that.
Do you think that five–year–olds who are modeling bikinis on Websites, and if you send your money in, the child will pose as you wish—you think that child is not being exploited?
Believe me, I just got started. I could talk about the ways children are exploited, without ever mentioning sex, for hours.
The problem is, I can get people to listen to [stories about] people starving in Ethiopia a lot easier than I can get them to listen to this.
Shella is the nearest and dearest book to my heart. First of all, it's my beloved orphan book. It's not a Burke book. And it's the closest to the bone that I've ever written. There's not an extra semicolon in that book. And because it not only tells the truth, but the truth it told has long since been proven and re–proven.
My life is full of pleasures. I don't know how they would be perceived by other people. But I have my animals, which I'm devoted to and are devoted to me. I'm married to a woman that you couldn't find if you searched millenniums. I've been blessed with the best comrades anybody could ever hope to find. I have no part of my life, though, that I can say is unconnected to my work.
I don't have a single social friend. I have people that I'm closer to than people could ever be to their brothers and sisters. But the entry ticket is their commitment to this mission. I don't have casual friends. I don't have a whole lot of, I guess, hobbies [laughing].
I work pretty much all the time. But I'm not complaining about that. It's what gives me the greatest pleasure. And what I always hoped to be able to do.
I come from a culture where a man works two jobs. That's what you do, right? And that's no big deal. It just slaughters me that people think God somehow ordained we work a forty–hour week. So I have no complaints. But if I didn't work every day, and I do mean every day, I would've fallen so irretrievably behind that I'd just be looking at the task.
This interview originally appeared in Case Magazine, the magazine of Case Western Reserve University.
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